State's Attorney: Crofton noose case 'an absurd battle' over statute

Phil Davis
Contact Reporterpdavis@capgaznews.com

A key issue in the hate crime case against a Pasadena man who helped hang a noose at Crofton Middle School is “an absurd battle” over specificity, Anne Arundel’s State’s Attorney says.

Maryland’s hate crime code has been a controversial topic of debate as State’s Attorney Wes Adams has argued that John Havermann, 19, of Pasadena, placed the noose at the school to harass or intimidate its black population.

Adams and Havermann’s defense attorney, David Putzi, have entered their final written arguments before Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. rules on the case. Maryland’s law governing hate crime charges continues to loom over his decision.

Harris’s decision could come as soon as this week.

Havermann aided Conner Prout, 19, of Crofton, in hanging the noose at the middle school on May 11, something the two have admitted in light of video evidence.

But rather then focusing on the historic imagery behind a noose and whether Havermann meant to threaten blacks, the two sides are largely arguing over a code the judge has suggested needs to be reviewed.

At no point in the law does it explicitly outline that multiple people can be the victim of a single hate crime — using the language “that person” — something that Putzi has focused on extensively both at trial and in his filed written arguments.

“Havermann argues that the plain meaning of the statute requires the State to name and prove a specific person who was targeted,” Putzi wrote.

In filing the charges, prosecutors did not list any individuals at the school as victims, arguing in court it was an indiscriminate act of discrimination against the school’s black students and staff.

Putzi has argued prosecutors would have needed to treat the case similar to a murder trial with multiple victims, which requires that each count of murder against an individual be linked to a named victim. He’s arguing Harris must find Havermann not guilty on all counts except the two trespassing charges.

“The failure of the State to charge a specific victim of the hate crime results in the State failing to charge an offense,” Putzi wrote.

In his written argument, Adams said Putzi’s interpretation is based on “illogical linguistic constraints” and is “absurd.”

In arguing the term “person” can and should be applied to multiple victims, Adams wrote that “limiting the word ‘person’ used on the victim side of this statute would lead to an equally absurd conclusion when applied to the burning of a cross on a black family’s home.”

“Which family member would the Defendant propose was targeted?” he said.

While Harris said he isn’t in a position to rule outside of the statute — saying at a hearing this month he “can’t rewrite the law” — he has also voiced his reservations over the prospect of hanging a noose at a public place not being interpreted as a crime. He’s also called on the state’s General Assembly to review the law for possible changes.

This sets the stage for a decision that could have far-reaching implications for how prosecutors approach potential hate crimes charges in the state.

Prout pleaded guilty to one hate crime charge in October in a unique agreement that sees him avoid prison in favor of community service dictated by local advocacy groups, including the NAACP.

The two have said it was not their intent to intimidate or harass blacks at the school and while Havermann has pleaded guilty to two trespassing charges, he’s fighting all other counts related to the hate crime prosecution.

Prosecutors have pointed to the fact the two chose the only school out of five within a half-mile radius with a black principal and hung it outside a black teacher’s classroom, having to traverse over other courtyards to be able to do so.

And for Havermann, Harris’ ruling could mean the difference between facing months or years in prison.

Neither a spokeswoman for Adams nor Putzi returned calls for comment Wednesday.

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